Thursday, March 03, 2011

Bright Eyes Interview : Performer Magazine

In the last issue of Performer Magazine, there was an interview with Bright Eyes that was unique because it was mostly focused on the recording technique of the band. The article is an interesting look at the creative process of the Conor Oberst, Nate Walcott, and Mike Mogis team. Read the interview below or at here.

The Reinvention of Bright Eyes
By: Daniel Kohn
In the nearly four years since the last Bright Eyes LP, Conor Oberst has been very busy. Between his work with Monsters of Folk and the Mystic Valley Band, the singer/songwriter hasn't had a dull moment. While working with Monsters of Folk, Oberst learned what made his colleagues, M. Ward and Jim James of My Morning Jacket tick. "It was great, it was like taking a look behind the curtain and seeing how things worked," Oberst remarks. "I learned a lot from watching those guys work." And it shows on the latest Bright Eyes album, The People's Key. Like each of the band's previous records, there are a slew of appearances by many in the group's far-reaching network of friends. Performer caught up with Oberst to talk about the band's new studio, the direction of the group's sound and his songwriting process. Catch Bright Eyes in April when they perform at Coachella, and read our full review of The People's Key in our February issue.

What made writing The People's Key different than the last few side projects you've worked on?

Every record is sort of a different experience. To be back with Mike [Mogis, producer and multi-instrumentalist] and Nate [Walcott, trumpet and piano] was nice. We were making a whole record from start to finish in our studio, which we built a couple of years ago and haven't had a chance to use yet. We knew what we didn't want it to be, I guess, more than what we wanted it to be. We were burned out on the Americana, rootsy kind of thing, so we wanted to step away from that.

Since this was the first time you've recorded in your new studio as Bright Eyes, what was it like working in the space from start to finish? Do you guys use Pro Tools or tape?

We recorded this on tape. Mike has a hybrid approach. We record onto to tape then do dubs and overdubs on the computer. Working out of there was nice; it's basically attached to his house, so essentially it's like recording at home. It was really comfortable; it's a completely hi-fi setup so you have the best of both worlds.

Was this your first time recording on tape?

We've tried it a bunch of different ways. Actually, my last couple of solo albums I wanted to use pure tape the whole time, which we did and that was fun. Mike's general approach, which I've found to be the best sounding, is to do the additional tracking on tape for the louder instruments.

How many tracks does the console have?

We have a Neve console, which I think is 48 tracks. And we have a CPI console that's a little smaller - there are two studios in there. We actually worked in both of the studios a lot. Sometimes we'd start a song and me and Andy [LeMaster of Now It's Overhead] or me and Andy and Nate would be in one room while Mike would be working on another song. We were multitasking, you could say.

How many rooms are there in the studio? Is there a live room and several other smaller ones?

There are two full studios, and two big live rooms. The A studio is bigger in both the control room and live room, and obviously the B studio is a smaller version. And actually there's a C room that's in the middle that has a Pro Tools setup. It's very luxurious.

Was this the first time as Bright Eyes that you guys have recorded an album from beginning to end in the same setting?

We did it before at Mike's old studio in Lincoln, Nebraska. We made some records there. It's nice to record closer to home this time. Mike's got a wife and a couple of kids, so it's nice for him to go inside and eat lunch with his kids and come back out to work on some more joints.

Did you go into the sessions with the songs prewritten or did you guys collaborate while in the studio?

About half and half. Some of them we had already written and those became the template for the record. Time wise, it was about a year of recording with lots and lots of breaks so there was stuff written over the course of that time. Not so much in the studio, but after we were on a break for a month, I'd come back with a couple of more songs and we'd keep going.

There are a lot of different types of songs on the album, ranging from indie-pop to some darker songs. Was this intentional?

Yes. We're trying to make the songs as good as they could be individually, but once the record was on its way, like when we had four or five songs down, then the theme started to emerge. Then there was more of a deliberate effort to make it one piece.

"Machine Spiritual (In The People's Key)" is one of my favorite songs on the album. What was the writing process for that one?

That one I specifically remember writing. It was one of the earlier ones and I wrote it while I was in Mexico in this town called Tulum, which is a beautiful town on the coast. I was staying in a house with some friends. I wrote that one on the beach there...

Did you bring what you had to the rest of the guys and just go from there?

The song usually starts with a chord progression, either on piano or guitar then we'll add vocals or melodies. I'll just demo it real fast and bring it to the band, then we decide how to approach it. Sometimes we'll try several different versions and we'll talk about what the drums and bass should do. We're not a live band at all. We're a band because what you hear in the end is sort of a composite of all our ideas, but we're not a live band in the sense that it's very much a studio project. We've been doing this for a while so it's always good to mix things up and not get too set in your ways. This was an interesting record because we had unlimited time and space. We didn't feel the pressure in the sense that we were taking breaks between sessions. A lot of times the guys think about songs by living with earlier versions of them and saying "I like this" or "this isn't working" and we'll go back and try it another way. That was a good thing for us because with other records we were under the gun. No one was watching the clock or anything and I think the songs are better for it.

What was it like having Bob Ludwig master the album?

He puts magic on it; what he does enhances the record. He doesn't blow it out or compress the shit out of it. Mike said something really interesting, "When we showed up here with our mixes, there were little things in every song that I wish I would have done differently but they're too small to remix." They were little things that he heard in the songs and after the mastering, those little things were gone, which is a testament to just how good Bob is.

It's been nearly four years since Bright Eyes released its last album. Why was there was such a long layoff and what made the group decide that the time was right to record?

We all have pretty separate lives and we're very rarely in the same city. Mike is a full-time producer and he makes a lot of records. A lot of times Nate gets hired for strings or horn arrangements and last year he was on the road with Broken Bells. So we were working amongst all of our schedules and that's why it took so long. After the last record, it felt like we needed to have a break - I made records on my own and everyone did their thing. But I felt it was good to be back together. Between the last two records, there wasn't really much of a break and we toured the whole time. I think the last three years were a good way to cleanse the pallet and come back and feel new again. We wanted to turn the page and make something that was interesting to us, 2011-style. 

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